In a matter of months, Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafists have beaten a path from marginalised religious sect to major political force. But what do we know about them, aside from their heavily religious roots? France 24’s Chris Moore and Noreddine Bezziou travelled to Egypt to find out.
We meet the president of the Salafist Al Nour party as he leads prayers at a mosque in Alexandria. “Before the revolution prayers were on more general subjects…now we are freer and we can be more frank,” Emad Abdul Ghafour tells us.
Like fellow members, he’s brimming with confidence. They’ve just scored 24% of the vote in Egypt’s landmark elections, making them the second biggest bloc in parliament. Not bad for a political party founded just nine months ago.
Hosni Mubarak’s departure in February 2011 has seen Egypt’s Salafists emerge from the shadows. Before, they operated in the half-light, in little mosques like these, the former leader’s security services – wary of Islamists – never far away.
Now, they can openly advocate their agenda. Their ideal society is that of the first Muslims, one based on a strict adherence to the Koran and Sharia law.
What is striking among the party’s leaders and supporters is the belief that this model will soon become reality. They’re buoyed by election results which have seen Egyptians vote overwhelmingly for Islam – the Salafists coming in second only to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Above the Salafists’ political wing is a religious council which gives the green light to policy. In a mosque further along the road we meet one of its members, Ahmed Farid. “Believing in total freedom, that individuals can do what they want as long as they don’t hurt others as they put it…that doesn’t work in our religion…because we are the servants of God and servants obey their masters,” he tells us.
Below the political wing exists a long-standing network of sympathisers whose means are growing. In the city of Faiyoum, we meet Abu Muslim. At 16, he became Egypt’s youngest Islamist prisoner, and spent 14 years in Mubarak’s notorious jail system before being released in 2006. “The more you’re tortured for your beliefs…the deeper those beliefs become,” he says.
Now, Abu Muslim has founded a centre with like-minded individuals. Their goal is to make ancient religious rules compatible with modern life and business.
With the generals who replaced Mubarak promising to hand power to a civilian government, Egyptians are about to learn how far and how fast the Islamists will go in applying Sharia law - and to discover the level of sway the Salafists hold.